Now I would invite you to sit for a moment. And to give me the opportunity to say one or two things. First of all I don’t know if any of you were here last year but I was here last year. I am a retired bishop from the neighbouring diocese called Clogher, but I live in Monoghan. I am retired there 3 years. Not a bad place to be in retirement. Now last year when I was here I was given a book, Lessons in Love, and last night I picked it out and had a read. Two or three things impressed me; first of all there was a fair section on the Sacred Heart of Jesus which coincidentally is the feast of today, the Sacred Heart. Now I grew up down the road in a place called Clones. Our church was the Church of the Sacred Heart. The Sacred Heart I can say quite honestly was always very special. I felt that somehow or another the Sacred Heart gets to the centre of things. It’s the Lord himself, the one who loves us to bits. The love of the Lord for each and every one of us and we are all special, all his friends. So the Sacred Heart is certainly not to be trifled with. It’s a huge feast. It so happens also that when I read the book I couldn’t help thinking it resonated, it picked up so much of the general feel of the person that I want to talk about this morning, and that is St. Patrick. The real reason Fr. Darragh invited me here I suspect is to talk about St. Patrick. He is the patron of our country and indeed I see the patron of this college here. We will get around to that in a few moments. Patrick certainly was someone who learned to appreciate how much he was loved. In fact the only real source of love in his life was the Lord. And the Lord in his various manifestations of faith, hope and charity. Two other small things…when we celebrate the Eucharist, we are celebrating the Lord’s love in the sense of accompanying the Lord on the way to Calvary. There is a little phrase in the Mass around the time of the offertory. We ask the Lord to pray that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable. In other words we bring our little bit of a sacrifice, our worries and our cares and our bothers and the things that really get at us from time to time. We bring those not just as individuals but we bring them as a group. And we unite those little worries with his huge sacrifice of making for Calvary. So we are all going to Calvary. It’s a bit grim when you put it that way but it is the heart of the matter and everything else is a detail. When we celebrate the Eucharist it is the journey to Calvary. Thank you for having me; it’s a great privilege and a pleasure.
Well the shepherd for me for the next few minutes is Patrick, Patrick the shepherd. So much one could say and I’ve got to try and say something that is reasonably brief and specific. A shepherd, one who cares, one who loves, one who looks after people and one who guides. My involvement with St. Patrick in its special way goes back to a time when I worked at Lough Derg. I think you know about Lough Derg, it is a place where people go to pray every year. It is called St. Patrick’s purgatory because he is the patron of Lough Derg. When I went to work there, there were one or two things that I thought were missing. The first was a short simple explanation of the meaning of the pilgrimage. The point of all this praying in the light of the Vatican Council which had just taken place in the 1960s. So I was prevailed on being young and innocent to compile it into a book about what I thought was the purpose of Lough Derg. Oddly enough it did centre around faith, hope and charity because they are the centre virtues of our faith. The second thing that occurred to me was that there was nothing really available to people about Patrick himself, who after all was the Patron. Unfortunately it is still the story in our country that around St. Patrick’s Day, the 17th of March, there is a great deal of celebration and jubilation and I suppose fun that goes on, which is fine. But very much I’m afraid at the expense of the man himself and in fact what tends to happen is that our Saint is turned into somebody that is totally unreal. All of that is by way of introduction to talking about Patrick as a man of faith. We are so fortunate that we have this means of communicating with him because he did leave a little account of himself behind called ‘The Confession’. It wasn’t a confession in the sense of a list of his sins, not that kind of confession. It was more an acknowledgement of who he was and who he saw himself to be in the sight of God who created him and to whom he owed everything he had. He keeps repeating over and over again that his life was God’s gift to him, his faith was God’s gift to him and everything he had was God’s gift to him. And that gift must be told, must be communicated. He was compelled to do that and this was the thrust of his life. This is what he was about from the very beginning. Now he begins by talking about the details of his life, in other words, how he arrived at this faith. You probably are aware of the biography how he was a boy in Roman Britain in the time when the Roman Empire was falling apart. And how he was kidnapped at the age of 16 and taken from Britain to Ireland as a slave. In the west of Ireland he was more or less sent out to mind the livestock on the side of a mountain where he had very little to eat and no cover from the weather. Generally speaking he had a very rough time. Above all else he had no human contact. Nothing could have been more negative than the experience he had as a young man from the age of 16-22. Six years he spent in slavery. And later he escaped. It was during this time that somehow or other this faith awakened in him and he explains how he turned to God in his misery. How he learned to pray for long hours both by day and by night. It’s extraordinary actually. He says it in a candid sort of way, disarmingly simple and yet when you think about it, it puts most of us to shame. That is the beginning of Patrick’s journey of faith.
For that faith to be awakened it had to be based on some kind of education or schooling that he had. It didn’t come out of nowhere before he was kidnapped. He was obviously brought up in some kind of a Christian environment. He does talk about the priest teaching him and warning him about behaviour, but it didn’t spark until he came to Ireland. Then he tells us how he escaped quite dramatically. He seemed to be guided by visions and dreams. It is a rare gift that some people have. Another great saint, and this is diverting a little bit but I just happened to be reading about him lately, ‘St. Columba’. It is a marvellous biography about this saint who lived within a 100 years and it is regarded like Patrick’s confessions. It would be the 2nd most authentic account of early Irish saints. And it is very clear how Columba was able to see things at a distance and was so modest about it. He didn’t want it known but it was there. It is a gift.
So Patrick had this gift in a big way and it is shorthand also of course for gradually coming to a vision of things, which gave him a sense of timing and a sense that God was with him. He also learned very much to trust God’s providence. That if a thing was to happen then it would be arranged that way otherwise it wouldn’t happen. And if you can go along with that, accept that, you will find that the wind will be at your back more often than you think. It’s when you try to resist the Lord’s presence and His intervention. It’s easy to be critical of that but it’s so natural to do it because very often it’s at the cost of your own convenience and even your own personal sense of being embarrassed, you don’t want to do something where people won’t think very highly of you but if you can work your way through that you will manage. Anyway Patrick learned to listen to the promptings of his mind; he learned to pay attention to inner voices and dreams. He came so see these experiences as coming from God. There can be experiences that come from the other source, from the Evil One. Be very conscious of the devil as well. There is a marvellous dramatic paragraph describing one bit where he felt that Satan was repressing him, standing over him with a huge big rock ready to crush him.
So that takes us through Patrick’s captivity. Then he tells us that he was captured a second time and that lasted 2 months. That was during his escape. And it was sometime around then that he had this vision of the Irish from whom he had escaped calling him back. You can imagine how he felt about that. Where he got such a rough time and everything had gone the wrong way and these were the very people that were calling him back so he would have to more or less go through this all over again. Patrick is a missionary and this is something that tends to get overlooked. As a missionary he was living in continual danger. He was literally in danger of his life everyday that dawned and every time he went out to preach he was at risk of being assassinated. And it was only because the Lord wanted him for other purposes that didn’t happen.
He uses different words to describe the process of allowing God to take over his life. I had mentioned that already. The incomparable gift to which everything is secondary because he knew God was with him, he overcame all human fear and anxiety. That’s an important point, this thing of fear. The only way to deal with fear is to pray for faith. The phrase used most often in the New Testament, ‘Do not be afraid’. Jesus kept telling his disciples to not be afraid. Patrick overcame that fear, he was convinced that he would never be defeated nor harmed nor lost, in spite of the enormous difficulties. He clearly saw the source of his strength. His only concern was to become a more fitting instrument in God’s hands. He knew his critics thought him to be deluded, too big for his boots and because he was sensitive by nature he was hurt. But he refused to be deterred. The setbacks he had suffered had put him outside the danger of being deluded. He had been severely humbled his entire life and he knew it. Another thing and this is the deepest part of the Confession and it takes a bit of work to get your head around it, Patrick explains the power of God at work in his life by attributing it to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is mentioned frequently in the Confession. Patrick is constantly prompted by the Spirit, tied by the Spirit and strengthened by the Spirit. One particular vision stands out as unprecedented and possibly unique in his life. It was sometime before he knew himself what was happening, that the Spirit was literally praying within him. We can only allow him to describe the event himself…”I saw a person praying within me. I was as it seemed inside my body and I heard him over me, that is, over the inner man. There he was praying with great emotion. All this time I was puzzled as I wondered greatly who could possibly be praying within me. He spoke however at the end of the prayer saying that he was the Spirit. When I awoke I recalled the words of the apostle, St. Paul, ‘the Spirit comes in adequacy at prayer but when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly, the Spirit himself expresses our plea with great emotion in a way that cannot be put into words’.” This was Patrick’s most profound experience of prayer, of the indwelling of the Lord in his soul. At a loss to explain what was happening he uses the words of St. Paul whom he resembles in so many ways. He saw himself not really chosen to be a missionary, but chosen to be a charismatic. Bring God’s Holy Spirit to our Irish ancestors. He was to be in his person the bearer of the Spirit, the Spirit of new life and new love. That was his high destiny.